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By Yang Hai, Lei Qin, and Josh Weiner
Samuel Morse and Mechanical Imitation
Samuel Morse was born in 1791, when America had just won its freedom from Britain and was finding its footing as a newly independent nation. As he aged, he witnessed America make further progress in that regard, establishing its government and expanding its technology.
His work as a painter and inventor mirrored his home nation’s concurrent development. He embraced the technology of the day throughout his whole career, and found a way to have it influence his artwork.
According to Morse and Mechanical Reproduction, there was an “unswerving path” running through all of his career endeavors. Morse’s various interests were “all linked by [his] commitment to his own principle of mechanical imitation.” This is the most basic connection between all of his identities, practices, and ideas: they were all driven by his desire to constantly reinvent work that had preceded him, so as to keep it up to date with contemporary technology and education. What author Sarah Kate Gillespie describes as his “go-ahead character” was a common denominator throughout his body of work.
Gillespie remarks that Morse was busy with “mechanical imitation” from his early career onwards, as seen with his proto-photographic projects and his “attempts to create a marble-carving machine for the replication of sculpture.” He worked in this same spirit as he tested new uses for the daguerreotype camera– taking what the French had already done and seeing whether he could take it further back in America.
All of Morse’s projects and ideas were driven by his deep love of technology. He recognized “the potential impact of technology on culture” and also had a strong “desire to be associated with this particular American brand of modernity.” This mentality is what drew him to the daguerreotype camera, introduced in France in the 1930’s. He was a big fan of the “marriage of the visual and technological” which this device represented– “art is to be greatly enriched by its discovery,” he said, and it would also be granted a new sense of “perspective and proportion.”
Given that painting, by its very nature, involves replicating subject matters, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Morse was so drawn to this medium. This idea of “mechanical imitation” is seen in his famous paintings, The House of Representatives and Gallery of the Louvre. He used the “camera obscura” technique in these works “to copy exactly what was in front of him.”
Along with repurposing technology for artistic purposes, Gallery of the Louvre fits in with the pattern in Morse’s career of elaborating upon what had come upon him. As Images as Evidence explains, gallery painting had existed in Europe for several centuries before Morse came along. But by imitating this “collection of old masters” with the help of the daguerreotype, Morse not only brought a new technology to this style of art, but also a new purpose and technology.
As author Catherine Roach remarks, Morse was applauded for making a gallery painting which could be used as a means of “bourgeois education,” which had not traditionally been the objective of artists who made gallery paintings. Plus, Morse was giving many Americans their first glimpse of some of the great artwork housed in the Salon Carré of the Musée du Louvre.
Even though, as Professor Irvine notes in his essay, Morse took some liberties in that all of these paintings were never together in the same room at once, “the first American meta-painting in the gallery painting genre tradition” still carried a noble objective. Morse hoped that showing all of this great artwork together at once would serve as inspiration to audiences in America, and create a sense of what was possible. Perhaps he would even “inspire a new American school of thought” with the country’s first official gallery painting.
Professor Irvine is right to note that “We find in Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre the same motivations for encoding and transmitting ideas and for communicating across distances that informed his concepts and designs for the telegraph.” This observation gets at the heart of the common motivation fueling all of Morse’s projects. His love of painting and love of new technology were demonstrably inspired by a desire to see his fellow citizens more cultured and connected. Along with “mechanical imitation,” these represent the connections which Morse’s lifelong projects and ambitions all seemed to share.
Communicating Ideas: The Art of Samuel Morse
Aside from creating his greatest artistic work—Gallery of the Louvre—Morse also achieved his greatest invention during this period: the single-wire telegraph, which revolutionized communications and ushered in the information age.
Morse’s telegraph was more efficient than other prototypes because it used a single wire. It was also much more reliable because it produced a record of the transmission by using electromagnets to print on paper. Using a different telegraph, the reader would have to watch a needle and transcribe the message they saw, which was far from reliable. But why did Morse suspend his now successful artistic career to focus on developing the telegraph?
At that time, communication was slow. Morse himself experienced communication problems. In 1811, when he arrived in London as an art student, tensions were high between England and the United States. English ships were attacking American ships believed to be carrying goods to England’s enemy, France. Eventually, England sought reconciliation but, tragically, while that message was on its month-long journey over the Atlantic Ocean, the United States declared war in 1812. This war lasted for two years amid similar confusion.
After the peace treaty had been signed, American and English forces engaged in another major battle, not knowing that the war was over. Slow communication also affected Morse in a more personal way. In 1825, Morse was 500 kilometers away in Washington D.C. when his young wife died suddenly in New Haven, Connecticut. He could not even attend her funeral because it took a week for the news to reach him by mail. However, an electrical impulse travels in an instant. Morse realized that the international and personal problems he had experienced could be eliminated if electricity could be put to use in communication.
Samuel Morse and The House of Representatives
In the painting The House of Representatives, Morse paid attention to the architecture; the painting depicted the important figures of American democracy at that time, symbolizing nationalism. The depiction of perspective lines is impressive, as well as the use of lighting.
The depiction of the telegraph in the painting of Gallery of the Louvre, and the appearance of Morse’s daughter Susan in the painting with a drawing board represent a kind of personification allegory of the art drawing (Irvine, 6). While Morse’s portrait of his daughter “Susan Walking Muse” marks the end of his painting career and step into the Daguerreotype photographs.
I was impressed by the Daguerreotype photographs in the National Portrait Gallery that we visited. They are tiny and kept inside an album. The Morse self-portrait photograph in 1845 is very different from his self-portrait painting in 1812. Not only they are depicted in diverse period of time, where Morse in his early young ages and later time. The differences in painting and photograph is shown and reflect different style and different meaning as well.
It was noticeable how Morse’s interest in investigating the new technology is reflected in his painting. The telegraph appeared in several painting as not only an object, an invention, but also a sign of technological invasion in the periods of time. The painting Men of Progress in 1862 marked the center and the focus point of Morse’s telegraph in the painting, where everyone else is sitting and standing around it.
What more, his use of technological devices when painting House of Representatives assisted him imitating exactly as previous work. Morse use camera obscura to help himself sketch the painting. His willingness to adopt technology into his painting work showed his strong awareness of technology usage in influencing the nation as well as his commitment toward mechanical imitation (103).
I think Morse’s strong interest in technology under the big environment of invention and technology arisen in the early and late nineteenth century gave him opportunity and reason to devote his career into telegraph invention.
- Cash, Sarah, ed. Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Washington, DC: Corcoran Gallery of Art; Hudson Hills Press, 2011.
- Gillespie, Sarah Kate. “Morse and ‘Mechanical Imitation.’” In Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention, edited by Peter John Brownlee, 100–109. New Haven: Yale University Press and Terra Foundation, 2014.
- Irvine, Martin. “From Samuel Morse to the Google Art Project: Metamedia, and Art Interfaces.”
- Roach, Catherine. “Images as Evidence? Morse and the Genre of Gallery Painting.” In Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention, edited by Peter John Brownlee, 46–59. New Haven: Yale University Press and Terra Foundation, 2014.